Elissa Benedek, M.D.
Elissa Benedek’s career in psychiatry has spanned nearly 50 years, and she has no plans for slowing down any time soon. Currently an adjunct professor in the department with a busy private practice, a strong love for teaching and mentoring, and filling active roles as consultant and advisor on issues from forensics to ethics, Dr. Benedek exudes a zeal for her work that she endeavors pass on to new trainees at every opportunity.
As a medical student at U-M in the 1960s, Dr. Benedek chose to enter psychiatry because she loved engaging with patients, and she also wanted a field where she could combine practicing medicine and raising a family – a balance she has kept firmly in check throughout her career. It was also one of the few specialties open to women physicians, although at the time, women were hardly well represented in the medical profession in general; Dr. Benedek remembers only a handful of women in her graduating class in medical school, and just one other woman during her residency. Dr. Benedek met her husband at U-M while he was a law student and she was attending medical school (“We studied together as students – I used to take my microscope to Rackham,” she says.). They married after her sophomore year, and they had their first child while she was finishing up her fellowship in child psychiatry. She and her husband have been married for 55 years and raised four children together, and she proudly lists all of their names as the first item on her CV.
After residency, she started out practicing child psychiatry at the York Wood Center, which was a residential treatment facility for youth in Ypsilanti. Her career then shifted directions when she joined the Center for Forensic Psychiatry, where she became its first director for training and research and helped develop the forensic fellowship program now run jointly between the center and U-M.
Forensic psychiatry, as it turned out, “was the perfect fit for me,” Dr. Benedek says. Being married to an attorney (with whom she has collaborated on many publications), “I’ve always been very comfortable with lawyers and trying to understand how they think,” she says. “Also, I love detective novels, and doing forensics is a lot like trying to figure out the intricacies of what happened and why.” Regarded as a national expert on child abuse, trauma, and neglect, Dr. Benedek continues to work in court through her private practice (which encompasses child, adolescent, adult, and forensic psychiatry), and she relishes the new challenges and demands for quick thinking that each case presents.
Dr. Benedek currently serves as a consultant to the Center for Forensic Psychiatry and has U-M forensic fellows shadow her in her courtroom work. Teaching and mentoring fellows, residents, and medical students is one of her passions. She is well known for her annual ritual of providing dinner for U-M medical students interested in pursuing psychiatry, following in the tradition of Stuart Finch, one of her own esteemed mentors, who provided similar guidance to budding psychiatrists as the director of child psychiatry when Dr. Benedek was a fellow. “With all of the students I teach and interact with, I hope in a way to convey the responsibility to bring up the next generation of students,” she says.
Today’s psychiatrists-in-training are “very energetic, and very skilled in using all the new technology available to them,” she says. “But they also recognize the importance of interpersonal relationships and the ‘old’ skills and techniques of psychotherapy. I think people go into psychiatry for the same reason they always have – because they want to work with people.”
In 1990, Dr. Benedek became only the second woman president of the American Psychiatric Association since its establishment in 1844 (she also served as APA vice president, secretary, and trustee), and over the years has very actively contributed to the committees, task forces, and councils of many professional organizations, as well as the editorial boards of numerous journals. In October, she received the Alexandra Symonds Award, given by the APA in partnership with the Association of Women Psychiatrists to recognize and honor a woman psychiatrist who has made significant contributions to promoting women’s health and the advancement of women.
She has concentrated on a few key issues, including ethics in psychiatry, the psychiatric dimensions of disasters and terrorism, and what she says “at one time were called women’s issues, but are really everyone’s issues,” such as rape and domestic violence. Through committee work or otherwise, Dr. Benedek says, “I think it’s really important for psychiatrists to get involved in public policy,” and names violence as a critical topic for which psychiatry could be leveraged more as a platform for increasing and enhancing mental health services.
“Through all these years I’ve had a lot of fun doing what I do, and I’ve enjoyed all the opportunities I’ve had,” Dr. Benedek says. From all accounts, she will continue to provide wise counsel and contagious enthusiasm for U-M and the field of psychiatric medicine for many years to come